Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth both lived during eras when women had little recourse to speaking out on their opinions. For the most part, even if given the opportunity to express an opinion, it’s likely the opinion would not be given much weight. Sojourner Truth, naturally, had to face circumstances that denied her the respect that even Abigail Adams’ had; not only was she poor and informally uneducated but-even worse for most people-she was black. The fact that both were women during a period of time when equal rights were celebrated but not practiced meant that they were forced to use more subtle means of persuasion. What is most interesting is the way in which each woman works to use her disadvantageous societal position to insinuate for herself an advantage in the art of persuasion. One might even go so far as to assert that both Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth accomplish something in their writings that few men could.
Although Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth use the power of language to both textually and subtextually to drive home their persuasive points, the most striking contrast between them is also related to the concept of language. What distinguishes the writings between Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth isn’t so much the content as it the level of language. Even more than that, it is the concerted use of a specific level of language utilized directly to appeal to a certain audience. The letters of Abigail Adams clearly reveals a woman of some education; her letters use elevated language, marked by long sentences containing multiple clauses, imagery, and clever use of words. In short, the writing of Abigail Adams is itself sophisticated.
Sojourner Truth’s speech by contrast reveals a woman who at first glance appears to be far less educated, if not necessarily less intelligent. Her speech contains simple words and sentence structure; indeed, one could even make the assumption that the language used by Sojourner was probably below even the level of Abigail Adams’ children during grade school. In fact, the appearance is given that she doesn’t even remember the word “intellect” in “Ain’t I a Woman.” Whereas Abigail Adams’ letters are dotted with sentences that invert tradition subject-predicate structure, Sojourner Truth’s sentences are straightforward and folksy. Abigail Adams’ letters are literary; Sojourner’s conversational. What may be most remarkable, however, is that despite these quite marked differences in style, language and tone, both Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth are similarly effective in persuading their audiences through the use of contrasting levels of language.
Part of the reason for this effectiveness has to do with the audience toward which both women direct their words. Abigail’s letters are, of course, directed to her husband John Adams, a man of education and renown and soon to be President. It is quite obvious that Abigail Adams is perfectly in tune with her husband’s psyche from the manner in which she so successfully utilizes what no doubt was considered a primarily feminine means of persuasion at the time: flattery. It would perhaps have been enough for many men for Abigail Adams simply to attempt to convince her husband that she is intelligent and educated-like those French women she admires in one of her letters. But in her infinite insight into the partner, Abigail Adams seems to intuit that she must go beyond even that. And therefore Abigail pursues the paradoxical path of drawing for her husband a self-portrait of himself as a man who appreciates intellectual stimulation in a female. Obviously, it would not be in Abigail Adams’ best interest to pen a letter holding up the right of women to be educated using the kind of language that Sojourner Truth uses; at least, not in this particular case. The thing that is especially persuasive in the letter from 1778 is that Abigail Adams is working from a position of not only intellect, but also emotion. She doesn’t just engage her full literary talents to prove that she can, she is also stroking her husband’s sense of pride by portraying him as a progressive thinker while at the same time appealing to him from a strictly logical perspective.
Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman” is not so very different from Abigail Adam’s letters, although on the surface they seem to have very little in common. Both women’s writings can be read on one level as an exertion of propaganda. Where Abigail Adams can appeal to the pride of her target, Sojourner Truth really has little choice but to eschew that particular route and instead dive headlong into an appeal to the much more visceral emotion of guilt, or the very least humiliation. Though the paths they take may be different, they both engage in the use of logical reasoning. Clearly, there are differences here as well, however.
Sojourner Truth’s audience was probably not as well educated as John Adams; of course, most people then and now were probably not as well educated as John Adams. Sojourner Truth and Abigail Adams both engage in intellectual appeals to their audience with Abigail obviously appealing to John Adams’ broad knowledge. Sojourner Truth seeks an intellectual engagement with her audience by appealing to their knowledge of just one book: the Holy Bible. Her speech is a persuasive argument that seeks to work by instilling a sense of guilt by first invoking the inhumanity of slavery. Then Sojourner elevates that argument to the next level by tying emotional technique to logic by simply and elegantly making the case that that the men who have justified their inhumanity by aligning themselves with Jesus Christ are themselves more alienated from Him than even she, a victim of slavery.
Though contrasts are quite evident in the level of discourse used by these two women, both share a similar intelligence and intuition in knowing how to make their cases.